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Friday 23rd Jun 2017

Home runs are happening this year, and they have been on the rise for quite some time. Heading into Saturday, the home run total for this season stands at 2510. At the current rate, with the 2017 campaign about 42.5% complete, the final home run total would be roughly 5906. This would represent a 5% increase from last year (5610), a 20% raise from 2015 (4909) and a hefty 41% spike from 2014 (4186). Astute fantasy owners are probably well aware of this trend simply by examining their league standings. In Mixed Auction Tout Wars, for example,  the current median home run total is 122, which would project to 287 over the full season. Last year,  the median was 272. In 2015, it was 242. And in 2014, 206 homers was good enough to finish in the middle of the pack.

Juiced ball? Stronger hitters? Weaker pitching? Whatever the reason for this season's longball frenzy, several unlikely home run sources have played a major role. Let's take a look at a handful of these guys.

Ryan Zimmerman (19 HR): Healthy again after three straight injury-marred seasons, Zimmerman is leading the power display of a Nationals club that ranks among the top four teams in the Majors in both runs scored and homers. The last time the 32-year-old slugged more than 26 home runs in a season was in 2009, and his HR/FB ratio this year is a career-best 19.6%, this compared to his 10.5% career average. Plus, 11 of his 19 homers came in April. While 30 home runs is reasonable (health permitting), it might be a good idea to see if someone in your league believes he will reach 40. If so, go ahead and work out a trade...sooner than later.

Logan Morrison (19 HR): Speaking of injury-prone players, Morrison is hoping to rebound from a 2016 season in which he played in only 107 games, though he did tally 14 home runs. Less than halfway through the season, the Rays first baseman is just four homers shy of the career-high 23 long balls he posted while with the Marlins back in 2011. Like Zimmerman, Morrison has benefited from an unusually high HR/FB ratio (20.2%) that is double his career average. As a waiver wire addition in the vast majority of league formats, even if he doesn't hit any more home runs this year, he has already rewarded his owners with an excellent return on investment. If he can avoid a prolonged DL stint, 30 homers is within reach. 

Eric Thames (19 HR): Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, as Thames was a prodigious home run hitter while playing in Korea. However, in his only two major league seasons (2011-2012), the 30-year-old managed to collect just 18 homers across 135 games. Thames' bat has cooled off since April, with only eight of his 19 home runs coming since the season's opening month, and his batting average has plummeted from .345 to .269 during that span. Still, we cannot simply pretend that the years in Korea and the first month of his return to the big leagues didn't happen, so I'll set the over/under for his end-of-season home run total at 32.5. In other words, solid production from here on out, though the window to sell high is likely closed.

Yonder Alonso (17 HR): Seriously, who saw this coming? We're not even at the midway point and Alonso has already nearly doubled his previous single-season high of nine home runs. A former top prospect, Alonso has yet to live up to expectations, but the strange thing is that those expectations never really included power, as he wasn't much of a home run producer in the Minors. He is hitting significantly more fly balls these days, which is a good thing. But now, at age 30, Alonso is all of a sudden a slugger? Call me skeptical.  

Brett Gardner (13 HR): After launching a respectable 33 home runs from 2014-2015, Gardner never found his power stroke last season, finishing with only seven longballs. Well, that power stroke has returned, and then some. With 13 homers entering play on Saturday, Gardner is on pace to shatter his previous single-season high of 17. But before you get all excited, keep in mind that nine of his 13 home runs came in May, and he's always been a streaky hitter, especially in the power department. What happens if another hot home run stretch doesn't come? Well, there would be a lot of disappointed Gardner owners, and even some relieved ex-Gardner owners. So, if you're currently a member of the first group, check in on the trade market and see if you can join the second group right now before it's too late. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Every day it seems, another one of my Tout starting pitchers is getting roughed up. I've managed to remain in the top half of the Mixed Auction Tout Wars standings on the strength of my hitting, but pitching has been a challenge, the main culprits being Kevin Gausman and Matt Moore. I thought that these two guys would reward me with breakout seasons. Instead, they have rewarded me with constant stress. Still, as of Saturday morning, my squad sits in fifth place out of 15 teams in ERA and ninth in WHIP, this despite a so-so 3.88 ERA and a mediocre 1.30 WHIP. How could this be?

I think I know the answer. Most of my league mates are suffering through similar pitching woes, so it is indeed all relative. But why does it seem like the quality of pitching has declined so dramatically this season? Just blame the upper-tier starters. I've stated numerous times in this column that paying big for starting pitching isn't my style, as even the "sure things" at this position aren't really sure things thanks to an elevated injury risk and overall inconsistency from one year to the next. And this season has been no exception. Go ahead and ask the owners of these hurlers how they are feeling now about investing in starting pitching. Note that in an effort to focus solely on performance, I'm not including pitchers who have spent time on the DL. 

Jake Arrieta (NFBC SP ADP: 8) - Arrieta struggled to the tune of a 4.60 ERA last September but pitched fairly well in the postseason, easing some concerns heading into 2017. But this season's version of the former Cy Young award winner does not resemble an ace, as the Cubs righty sports a 4.46 ERA through 12 starts with only six quality starts. The good news is that two of those quality starts have come in his last two outings, and he's still whiffing well over a batter per inning. If Arrieta can cut down on the homers (11 HR allowed), he should be fine. Maybe not a top-10 SP from here on out, but certainly top-25. 

Justin Verlander (NFBC SP ADP: 11) - Speaking of former Cy Young award winners, Verlander regained fantasy ace status last season, but he's now looking more like the mediocre pitcher we saw in 2014. Sporting career-highs in walk rate (4.2 BB/9) and home run rate (1.3 HR/9), the veteran righty has not come close to earning his draft day price. He will get better, but will he still be considered a legitimate fantasy ace four months from now? I have my doubts.

Jacob deGrom (NFBC SP ADP: 14) - Following back-to-back outings of at least seven earned runs, deGrom owners are in full panic mode. And who can blame them? Through 12 starts, the Mets righty has registered a 4.75 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. Well, at least he's racking up strikeouts at a career-high rate (11.8 K/9). They say he's healthy, but the Amazins' medical staff doesn't exactly have an amazing track record in recent years. There's little his fantasy owners can do at this point but sit tight and hope for a turnaround. Please ignore the lowball trade offers.

Masahiro Tanaka (NFBC SP ADP: 18) - Here in New York, everyone but the team and the player is speculating that Tanaka could be injured. The recent results have been ugly, with the Japanese import allowing at least five earned runs in four of his last five starts. I wasn't touching Tanaka in fantasy leagues this year, as it is only a question of when, not if, he will need Tommy John surgery, so fortunately, I have avoided this mess. Think of the Tanaka situation as a more ominous version of the deGrom situation. There is nothing his owners can do, but instead of getting lowball trade offers, they're probably getting no trade offers.

Jose Quintana (NFBC SP ADP: 23) - This one surprises me, as I tried to draft Quintana in as many leagues as possible this year. Fortuitously, I was only able to draft him in one league. The usually reliable southpaw has notched only six quality starts in 12 tries while posting career-worst numbers in almost every category. Maybe I'm biased here, but as long as he's healthy, I wouldn't be concerned. Don't let an inconsistent 12-start stretch overshadow four straight seasons (2013-2016) of 200-plus innings, an ERA no greater than 3.51, a WHIP no higher than 1.27 and at least 164 strikeouts.

From unanimous top-25 fantasy SP to only 83% ownership in ESPN leagues. Perhaps now is a good time to buy low. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

I'm usually pretty good at identifying undervalued starting pitching, a skill that enables a fantasy owner to focus on hitting in the early rounds of snake drafts, or devote as much as 75% of an auction budget towards the purchase of bats. I've been fairly successful once again this season, having bought Ervin Santana, Lance Lynn and Gio Gonzalez for a combined $4 in Mixed Auction Tout Wars. So why is starting pitching my team's biggest weakness so far? Well, my higher-priced buys, namely Cole Hamels ($17), Kevin Gausman ($9) and Matt Moore ($5), have been either injured or inconsistent, and overpaying for a starting pitcher in a trade isn't my style. 

So, in looking to starting pitching, the waiver wire is my only option. Thanks to the sky high number of injuries so far this season along with the size of the league (15 teams), the process of scanning the waiver wire in search of viable starting options can get quite depressing. The good news is that every owner is dealing with the same challenge, though some have fared better than others. Since I'm in a positive mood today, I figured that I'd highlight some of the best pickups so far. Believe me, this was not an easy exercise.

Jason Vargas (Fred Zinkie on 4/10 for $10) - Vargas has pieced together a solid big league career as a back-end of the rotation starter, but we haven't seen this. Through ten starts, the veteran lefty has posted a 2.39 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP to go along with 51 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. Expect regression across the board for the owner of a career 4.09 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 6.0 K/9 rate. Vargas owners should enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Jesse Hahn (Scott Swanay on 4/10 for $28) - Tuesday's rough start versus the Marlins marked the first outing this season in which Hahn has allowed more than three earned runs. His 3.81 ERA and 1.29 WHIP for the year bear a close resemblance to his career 3.82 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. The fact that he's served up only one home run through 49 2/3 innings this season after allowing eight homers in 46 1/3 frames last year is especially encouraging. Hahn was placed on the 10-day DL on Saturday with a right triceps strain, but he's expected to return when first eligible.

Derek Holland (Derek Van Riper on 4/17 for $27) - Fully healthy for the first time since 2013, Holland has resurfaced on the mixed league radar after registering a 2.37 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP through ten starts. Since Van Riper snagged Holland, his namesake has notched six quality starts in seven tries. Expecting Holland to continue performing at this level is probably unrealistic, but this is a guy who has proven to be a highly effective big league pitcher when healthy, so it's far from unrealistic to expect him to maintain mixed league value from here on out.

Jordan Montgomery (Fred Zinkie on 4/17 for $3) - Although Montgomery's 4.30 ERA is nothing special, the rookie southpaw sports a solid 1.24 WHIP to go along with 43 strikeouts over 46 innings through his first eight big league starts. Montgomery has shown strong poise on the mound and looks like a pitcher who could have a long career ahead of him as a reliable middle of the rotation real-life hurler and a quality back-end of the rotation fantasy option. He might turn out to be one of the better Mixed Auction Tout Wars waiver wire finds of 2017.

Zack Godley (Scott Engel on 5/15 for $46) - We're not talking about a significant sample size here, so let's not get too excited just yet. Godley, who struggled to the tune of a 6.39 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in 27 appearances (nine starts) for the Diamondbacks last year, seems to have gotten his act together this season, pitching to a 1.99 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP through five starts. And in three starts as a member of Scott's active roster, he's delivered a 1.83 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. Over parts of five minor league seasons, the 27-year-old boasts a 2.94 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and a 9.0 K/9 rate, so perhaps Godley is just a late bloomer.

Or perhaps in a week or two, he will be back on the waiver wire, joining the already lengthy list of starting pitcher FAAB purchases that have not worked out.

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

There are multiple paths to a fantasy baseball league title. If you drafted well and are able to avoid significant injuries, sticking with almost the exact same team for the entire season is a fine way to go. On the other hand, making a lot of trades, even if you did draft well, could pay off. First, there's that whole buy low/sell high strategy. Even more importantly, trading can be fun if you don't fall for the trap of becoming too emotionally attached to your players. Why not add some new life to your roster? I've always viewed Memorial Day as the point in the season when we can closely analyze our rosters and accurately identify strengths and weaknesses. Not surprisingly, it is around this time when trading picks up. I'm expecting at least a handful of swaps over the next week or two in Mixed Auction Tout Wars. This has always been a very active league, both on the FAAB and trade fronts, and 2017 is no different. 

So, as we head into the heart of trade season, here's a look at some of the more significant trades that have already been made.

Ron Shandler trades Freddie Freeman and Jose Peraza to Ray Flowers for Corey Knebel and Josh Bell (effective week of 5/29)

This is an intriguing one, as Ray was willing to part with a productive bat in Bell (who sees a value boost in OBP leagues like Tout) in addition to one of his four closers in exchange for a high-end speed source and Freeman, a DL stash. The Braves first baseman is expected to be sidelined until at least early-August, but as an elite run producer, he could be well worth the wait. More reward on Ray's side, though Ron, who leads the league in steals, was able to fill an immediate need at closer (the Jeurys Familia injury left him with only Hector Neris) while also securing a solid 1B replacement for Freeman.

Scott Pianowski trades Wil Myers to Scott Engel for Michael Fulmer (effective week of 5/29)

A fair hitter for starting pitcher exchange, though I tend to give the edge to the hitter in such trades. But Myers' production fell off dramatically in May following a stellar April while Fulmer has been very consistent so far, his most recent outing marking the first time all season that he has allowed more than three earned runs in a start.

Zach Steinhorn trades Jonathan Schoop to Brent Hershey for DJ LeMahieu (effective week of 5/22)

This seemed like a logical move for me at the time, and I'm still glad I made the trade as I had and still have a greater need for runs and OBP than homers and RBIs. In 11 games for Brent's team, Schoop has already tallied two home runs and six RBIs while LeMahieu has posted a .245 OBP in 12 games for my squad. Not good. I'm not panicking though.

Al Melchior trades Eduardo Rodriguez to Brent Hershey for Byron Buxton and 80 FAAB dollars (effective week of 5/15)

Tough break for Brent as Rodriguez is now on the DL due to a knee injury suffered during warm-ups prior to his last start. Rodriguez ended up taking the mound despite the injury, which ended up being a mistake, as he allowed a season-high seven runs. Still, the Red Sox southpaw has been productive for Brent, notching three wins in four starts to go along with a 1.17 WHIP and 23 strikeouts across 25 2/3 innings. As for Buxton, he's been one of the more frustrating players to own this season, though he has picked up his play of late, with three RBI and two steals over his last four games entering Saturday. The verdict on this trade is to be determined, with the health status of Rodriguez up in the air for the time being.

Ray Flowers trades Christian Yelich to Fred Zinkie for Addison Reed, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Randal Grichuk (effective week of 5/15)

What a surprise, Fred is punting saves again. He was able to snatch Reed off the waiver wire just before the announcement that Familia would miss several months. So how about a 3-for-1 trade involving Reed where you get clearly the best player in the deal? I like those trades for the owner getting the best player. Keep in mind that roster spots have value. Unless a DL slot is available, the owner getting the three players would need to drop two players, so those guys are essentially part of the trade as well. Grichuk has since become a non-factor in mixed leagues while Bradley is just beginning to heat up.

Tim Heaney trades Avisail Garcia to Scott Engel for Brandon Maurer (effective week of 5/8)

I'm not usually a proponent of trading for closers, but this made a lot of sense for Tim, who came out of the draft with Seung-hwan Oh as his only source of saves. He had added Garcia in FAAB back in mid-April, and since the much-hyped outfielder has never lived up to expectations, not many owners were buying into his hot start. I know I wasn't. The funny thing is Garcia has continued to hit, slashing .325/.367/.536 with eight homers and 37 RBI through 51 games, and it's beginning to look like 2017 will indeed be his long-awaited breakout season. Maurer has provided Tim with five saves, but at the expense of ERA (11 ER in 10 2/3 IP). This could turn out to be a win for both sides, though Garcia currently holds a strong lead in the contest.

Alright, enough analyzing. I need to send out some offers. 

Zach Steinhorn is the 2016 Mixed Auction Tout Wars champion. Follow him on Twitter @ZachMLB

Don't invest heavily in closers on draft day. Don't pay for saves. Closers can be found on the waiver wire throughout the season. That last statement is true, but in all my years playing fantasy baseball, I've never followed the part about not paying for saves because, well, you're not paying for only the saves. You're paying for peace of mind. My general approach has been to draft one elite-level closer in addition to a mid-tier stopper with a high degree of job security. This approach has generally worked out nicely, as I've never really found myself in a situation where I'm forced to dedicate a large portion of my FAAB budget on speculative closer acquisitions, many of which never pan out. Barring an injury, 65-plus saves were in the bank to go along with solid ratios.

However, things are beginning to fall apart this season, as I am indeed a Francisco Rodriguez owner in two leagues, including Mixed Auction Tout Wars. Now look, I didn't expect K-Rod to be dominant this year, as it became especially clear towards the latter part of last season that he was way past his prime. However, I did expect him to pitch well enough to hold onto the closer job with the Tigers bullpen lacking an obvious fallback option. So much for that. We have yet to reach the one-quarter mark of the season and Rodriguez is already out, replaced by Justin Wilson, who has been nearly automatic as Detroit's setup man. Whether or not K-Rod eventually reclaims the closing gig remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that I'm now in the exact situation that I hoped to avoid, in dire need of a second closer and scanning a waiver wire that doesn't even include most of the primary setup guys.

But enough about my own predicament. All of this closer thinking got me thinking about the overall relief pitcher landscape, more specifically relief pitcher FAAB additions. Saves hunting has always been a popular theme when it comes to Tout Wars FAAB pickups, and this year is no different. Of the 137 players purchased so far this season in the Mixed Auction league, 30 (21.9%) are relief pitchers. Some of these relievers were already declared their team's new closer at the time of the purchase while others fell under the speculative pickup category. Some of these moves have worked out while others have not. Here's a sampling.

THE GOOD

Justin Wilson ($42) - An alert move by Jeff Zimmerman a couple weeks before the K-Rod demotion, and one that as a Rodriguez owner, I should have made. I guess I just didn't think that things would get bad enough to warrant a ninth inning change in Detroit. But they did.

Bud Norris ($73) - Norris' closing stint was supposed to be brief, only until Cam Bedrosian returned from the DL. But Bedrosian's groin strain will keep him sidelined for longer than originally expected, and Norris has done a fine job as the Angels stopper, converting six of his seven save chances while whiffing well over a batter per inning. Could the Halos decide to keep Norris in the closer role even after Bedrosian comes back? Sure they could.

Santiago Casilla ($184) - Who knows how Oakland's closer situation will play out long-term, but Casilla does lead the team with six saves and he does boast a strong big league track record, including several stints in the closer role. His blown save in Texas on Friday will test his job security, however.

Addison Reed ($0) - Perfect timing, as Reed was added just a few days prior to the Jeurys Familia blood clot news. Reed, a former closer, has been a dominant setup man since the start of last season and carries top-10 stopper upside from here on out.

THE BAD

Joaquin Benoit ($40 and $53) - Interestingly enough, Benoit currently resides on my roster (thankfully my bench). The two-time FAAB buy was the Phillies closer for a few days in April until he blew a save in Washington, and thanks to the struggles of Hector Neris, Benoit seemed to be on the verge of returning to the ninth inning. But that was before Wednesday's outing against the Mariners when he allowed five earned runs, raising his ERA from 2.63 to 5.79. 

Jeremy Jeffress ($26) - The purchase of Jeffress on April 10 looked good at the time, as he was considered the slight favorite over Matt Bush to replace Sam Dyson as the Rangers stopper. And he was a fairly safe bet to do well in the role considering his strong 2016 campaign during which he posted a 2.33 ERA and saved 27 games for the Brewers before getting traded to Texas at the deadline. But we're now in mid-May and Jeffress sports a disappointing 4.70 ERA and 1.89 WHIP through 19 games and has yet to record a save while Bush has tallied two of the team's four total saves. Bush is clearly the guy for the time being, but don't rule out Jeffress eventually returning to the ninth inning picture if he can rediscover his 2016 form.

THE UGLY

Blake Treinen ($359) - Treinen belongs in his own category simply due to the price tag. On April 3, Jeff Zimmerman forked over more than one-third of his season FAAB budget to add the newly anointed Nationals closer. In exchange, he got three saves, a 6.43 ERA and a 2.29 WHIP across seven innings. Heading into Saturday, the 28-year-old righty has allowed at least one run in ten of his 17 appearances this season. The chances of him returning to the closer role anytime soon are slim to none.

Kind of like the chances of me deviating from my longstanding draft day approach to closers, despite this season's K-Rod experience. 

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